By press time, it might well be that everything there is to say about Prince had been said, and then some. Forgive me though, if I take a couple of minutes to talk about not the performer, but about his favorite instrument, a knock-off Fender Telecaster.

There is a movement on to educate the world that Prince was not just a pop star, but a great guitarist as well. Even a cursory look around the internet should convince you of the truth of this. Of the live footage out there, perhaps the most stunning is his solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame ceremony inducting George Harrison. Yowsa. What are these wild and strange blues, and why are they emanating from a guy who is famous for smoothly produced pop music?

In that video, and in most of the others available, Prince is playing a rather subdued, butterscotch colored instrument. It has the distinctive shape of a Fender Telecaster, the world’s first commercially successful solid body electric guitar. First produced in 1950, the Tele (at the time sold under the names Broadcaster and Esquire), predated the more famous Fender Stratocaster and Gibson Les Paul by four and two years respectively.

A word about electric guitars. First, they are one of only two truly American instruments (the other being the sousaphone). Second, despite generations of gushing reports of quality and awesomeness and whatnot, they are basically a guitar neck bolted or glued to a solid piece of wood. It takes years of training for a luthier to be able to make an acoustic guitar, whereas an electric can be (and are) built by high school students in woodshop class.

Even in the primitive world of electric guitars, the Telecaster stands out for its simplicity. It’s a crude and brutish instrument, designed by a guy – Leo Fender – who wasn’t even a guitar player. It has two electronic pickups, a chrome lipstick neck pickup which produces muted sludge, and a bridge pickup which puts out brittle yet ear splitting treble. The tone knob is singularly ineffective at improving the former or restraining the latter. Some recent versions have a pickup switch which allows you to use both pickups simultaneously, resulting in a sound which almost resembles that of a guitar. It has no bells or whistles. It barely has strings.

It is the greatest guitar in the whole wide world.

According to the fine people at the online site Ed’s Guitar Lounge, Prince’s guitar was actually not made by Fender, but instead is an H.S. Anderson Madcat manufactured by Hohner, a German company usually known for their harmonicas.

H.S. Anderson and Hohner back in the day were in the same business guitar companies like Hamer are today, producing Cadillac versions of famous Fender designs. They use extra nice wood and pretty paint textures, and might substitute pickups which did not (as with the telecasters) originate in a lawnmower factory. You can’t overcome that much crudity with pretty paint though, any more than you can make a Chevy a Cadillac by adding nice cup holders. The things are still Telecasters, heart and soul.

According to the story, the Madcat’s near-identical design to the Fender caused litigation in the 70’s which shut down production, but a stray guitar made its way into a music shop in Minneapolis. There it encountered a pre-fame Prince Rogers Nelson, who supposedly thought it matched a leopard print strap he already owned…

It certainly isn’t the sort of guitar you would think of when you think Prince. It makes way more sense to associate him with the other two guitars he has been known to play, the customized Purple Rain Guitar which looks like an instrument out of LOTR, and the guitar shaped like the unpronounceable symbol that Prince changed his name to in 1993. Both are glamorous to the point of lameness. The Tele, well….it’s a hunk of fucking wood.

Prince’s Madcat is surprisingly – almost shockingly – low key. Its butterscotch color mimics the coloration of vintage white telecasters which yellowed over time. The only concession to Princedom are some rather subdued, vaguely leopard skin-like speckles on the pickguard, which you almost don’t notice unless you’re looking for them.

But watching Prince play the thing live, this instrument makes perfect sense. Because Prince wasn’t just a world-class guitar player, he was a ferocious one. He beat the hell out of his instrument and put his whole body into every string bend. Not just technical skill, but pure physical aggression, the kind that makes a Tele dance and squeal and scream. The Tele isn’t easy or comfortable to play and fights you for every note, but it’s as tough as they come and can handle anything you throw at it.

Or even when, as Prince liked to do, you actually throw it.

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